Archive for May, 2014

The case for a correction in the case of Rosemary Namubiru
May 24, 2014

namubiruI don’t know Rosemary Namubiru. I don’t know what it was to be her, at 64, a nurse in Uganda, a country where the incidence of HIV the virus that leads to AIDS is going up, instead of down, as in other African countries. I don’t know what it is to live in a country, as she does, where, for every 14 people you know, chances are one of them is living with HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS. I don’t know what it was like to be working that Sisyphean job of tending patients where the health need is never met, in spite of Uganda being one of the wealthier countries in Africa. I don’t know what it is like to have HIV, as she does.

Given all of that, I recognize at least some of what I don’t know about Rosemary Namubiru.

This is what I do know: In January, a two-year-old child with a fever was brought into the busy clinic where she worked, and she tried to give the child an intravenous injection. The child was struggling, and at one point, the needle pierced the nurse’s skin, instead of the child’s. The child’s mother reported that Ms. Namubiru didn’t change the needle as she went on, finally, to successfully administer the injection. The police were called and arrested Ms. Namubiru, at one point pulling her head back forcibly so news reporters, who also had been called, could get a picture of her face, and put it in the newspaper and on the internet. They called her “Baby Killer” and “Killer Nurse.” She was held without bail for her trial on a charge stemming from a colonial era law criminalizing exposing people to an infectious disease. During her trial, containers of the antiretroviral medicine that she takes, and that keeps her virus from being readily communicable was introduced as evidence against her. The child, also, was given antiretroviral medicine to keep him from acquiring the virus, a practice familiar in health settings known as “post exposure prophylaxis,” has been tested twice for HIV, and has been found not to have it. Her trial finally concluded this month when she was sentenced to three years in a Ugandan prison on a conviction of negligence. This much is a matter of record.

So why American news outlets picked up, and ran a story saying that she was found guilty of negligence for “attempting to spread HIV,” and for “spreading HIV,” is something else I don’t know. We share English as a common language, and negligence, you can look it up now, means inattention, failure, laxity, oversight, forgetfulness – not intention. “Spreading HIV” means giving it from one person to another, which did not happen in this case. I don’t know what it was to be Rosemary Namubiru that day in the clinic, or the parents of the child, who I can imagine were upset to see a needle that had pierced a nurses skin used on their child. I say “can imagine,” because I don’t know that either. I don’t know how often that happens in that overburdened health system.

I do know what it is to be a journalist, though. I knew, in the news writing 101 class I took that misspelling someone’s name would get you an F on an assignment. Doing what the Ugandan journalists have done would get you fired, and sued.

That is supposed to be what happens here, when you write things that aren’t backed by record here, and that accuse people of things a court hasn’t even charged them with. And yet, news outlets all over the country picked up a story that was not only riddled with inaccuracies, but observable inconsistencies. Many, including some that added embroideries of their own, remain as is, online. The story on Time.com continues to say that Uganda criminalizes intentional spread of HIV, a statement that, while irrelevant, also happens to be untrue. So, another thing I know is that it is past time to stop, examine how journalists, including editors, treat stories out of Africa, and correct them.

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